I've spent a large part of my reading time these past few months re-reading the Nero Wolfe detective series written by Rex Stout. In case you're not familiar with them, as you very well may not be, the books (33 novels and 39 short stories were written between 1934 and 1975 when Rex Stout died at the age of 88) are mysteries that feature the weighty genius detective, Nero Wolfe. Brilliant, eccentric cynic Nero Wolfe makes his living as New York City's finest private detective. He charges outrageous fees, usually in the tens of thousands, to solve the highest-profile murders - because, quite frankly, he needs the money. After an adventurous youth in his native Montenegro, he's now fully engaged in the pursuit of self-indulgence, weighing in at "a seventh of a ton" ('to insulate my feelings,' he explains). He literally refuses to leave his home on business - or most anything else, for that matter - and has seen to it that there's little reason why he should.
Renowned Swiss chef Fritz Brenner caters to his gastronomic obsessions; botanist/put-upon plant nurseTheodore Horstmann helps care for the 10,000+ orchids in the rooftop greenhouse; and Archie Goodwin, our narrator, acts as his legman, secretary, bodyguard, occasional chauffeur and general sounding-board. A gifted investigator in his own right, Archie is the one who goes out and finds the suspects, collects the clues and romances the ladies, while Wolfe uses his keen intellect to piece it all together and collect the fee. (Although under some circumstances, usually touching pride - as when a woman was strangled in the office with Wolfe's own necktie - honour demands they solve a case regardless of client or funding.)
The supporting cast includes freelance investigators Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, often called in to work surveillance and other routine angles on a case; Archie's casual girlfriend, smarter-than-she-looks society girl Lily Rowan; and Lon Cohen, city editor of the Gazette, who trades inside info for scoops on the flashy murders that Wolfe solves. Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins provide the police presence, many steps up the competence ladder from Holmesian bobbies, and much more realistically resentful of a civilian wielding such power, but never quick enough to do anything about it.
Interestingly too, although somewhat strange as the years pass, is that while the central characters never age, and unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories that always happen in 1895, the Nero Wolfe books are always contemporary to their time. Of course when reading the later books it is kind of amusing to imagine Nero Wolfe as a ninety year old grump ordering the now seventy year old Archie to go out and charm the ladies.
“Every man alive is half idiot & half hero. Only heroes could survive in this maelstrom & only idiots would want to.”
- Rex Stout
Yes, I did read a few other books in between, but more about them another time.